The electronic marriage

Petersburgh's Barton and Priscilla McLean make avant-garde music together

By JOSEPH DALTON, Staff writer, Albany (NY) Times-Union First published: Sunday, January 16, 2005

For most of the year the McLeans are quiet residents of Petersburgh, Rensselaer County, where they've lived for 20 years. But each spring, they earn their livelihood by taking to the road and presenting their homegrown, avant-garde music at institutions like Tulane University in New Orleans or Texas' Abilene Christian University, both stops on this year's trip.

The McLeans' music is based in an admiration for nature, but it's created using the most advanced electronic tools available. The combination is thus primitive and highly sophisticated at the same time.

One critic described the experience of a McLean Mix concert as "getting close to the inner forces and rhythms of the Earth."

In today's larger musical scene, the McLeans are as rare as a banjo in symphonic orchestra. Their music is as unique as the way they lead their career, which is with a remarkably low level of ego-driven ambition.

"They follow their own star," says composer Joel Chadabe, who runs the Electronic Music Foundation in Albany. "Within the world of electronic music, there are definitely conventions and norms. ... They don't fit (any of) them easily."

The McLeans' music is characterized by an austere, often macabre resonance. The boundary between reality and the cyber world becomes slippery.

In works like "In the Beginning" by Priscilla McLean and "Dawn Chorus" by Barton McLean, such an effect is the result of both an artistic vision and certain musical techniques.

Electro-acoustic

They often work in a form known as electro-acoustic -- wherein a live, or acoustic, instrument is accompanied by electronic effects. And their electronic sounds frequently come out of the technique of musique concrete, in which a raw or natural sound, like a bird call or Priscilla's singing voice, is manipulated using electronic tools.

The sounds of nature seep in and out of the music, and its themes are prominent in titles like "Earth Music" and "Visions of a Summer Night."

After another Hudson Valley appearance in New Paltz on March 1, the road show begins in earnest with six dates in the South, a couple of appearances in Texas and a final swing through the Midwest. In all there will be 12 concerts, two residencies and approximately 10,000 miles of highway travel.

"They believe in their creative work, and that work defines their life," says composer Edmund Campion, who has presented the McLean Mix at the University of California at Berkeley, where he teaches. "They are total artists, not compromised by university or commercial constraints. That is what I call a big success."

Academic orbit

Among American composers, it's often considered a badge of honor to earn a living from music without having to teach. Although the McLeans today carry that distinction, they always have been part of the academic orbit.

It was while earning graduate degrees in composition at the University of Indiana that they met. "We married three months after we started going together. Once you know, you may as well do it," says Priscilla.

"Also a matter of economics," chimes in Bart, during a recent discussion.
"He's so practical," replies his wife. But she adds, "I'm the one who initiated it."

Exchanging vows in 1967, the couple felt a part of the progressive spirit of the times. But the universities where they studied and later worked were slow to embrace change.

The first lesson of institutional resistance came at Indiana, where they weren't allowed access to Iannis Xenakis, the visionary but self-taught composer and theorist who was a visiting scholar.

"He was such a threat to the (traditional) music people that they just put him in a hall and did not allow him any contact with students," says Bart McLean, recalling how they got to know Xenakis' music through recordings that they bought off-campus.

In their own version of free-form "happenings," which they dubbed "fiascoes," the McLeans and their circle would come together to perform, improvise and play recordings of Xenakis and other renegades like Edgar Varese. "All the music the professors were ignoring," says Priscilla.

Another grating aspect of academia were the opportunities given to Bart but denied Priscilla. "I was not allowed to teach in any of the departments Bart taught in, ever," she says.

Recalling their days in Austin, where Bart was on the University of Texas faculty from 1976 to 1983, Priscilla says that she was refused access to department's underutilized electronic music studio. It was even suggested that she apply as a student. "I was so incensed by that (that) I never worked in the studio," says McLean. "I just took pieces of it home."

Going professional

"We exploded in 1982," says Bart of the launch of the McLeans' touring business. A string of recordings on the CRI and Folkways labels around the time also didn't hurt. "In 1984 we had 15 concerts, which went all the way to California," says Priscilla.

"At that point we felt we had to leave the university, (because) the direction we were going was more professional than academic. We moved up here and decided to be starving artists and see how it went," concludes Bart, smiling a bit at the obvious happy ending. (They both look sufficiently nourished.)

But they still hustle. Every fall Bart begins cobbling together dates for the spring tour. Ten years ago, he would do a mailing of 4,000 brochures and typically get a 1 percent response. Today, it's all done by e-mail -- 1,100 messages were sent last year, some to old colleagues, many to new contacts.

"We'll get in touch with what we think is a cold contact and they'll say, 'We've been wanting to have you for 20 years,' says Priscilla, who's recently completed a first draft of a memoir.

The McLeans' most widely known work from recent years is "Rainforest Images," an installation that allows visitors to sing, speak or play an instrument into a microphone that echoes throughout a dense electronic landscape. The Albany Center Galleries presented "Rainforest" several years ago, and the McLeans have also had installations at MASS MoCA in North Adams, Mass.

All of the McLeans' works from the last few years now also include visuals by Priscilla. It makes for more dynamic performances and further heightens the surreal. In "Autumn Requiem," for example, she uses computer technology to superimpose images of the New England landscape.

But the McLeans can celebrate as well as be reflective. They frequently entertain in their large old farmhouse, and Bart's piece "Happy Days" consists entirely of the sounds of music boxes, small percussion instruments and New Year's Eve noisemakers. It ends with a quote of "Auld Lang Syne." When they perform the piece, they don party hats.

"It's very seldom that two composers work it out as well as they have," says Karl Korte, a composer in Buskirk, Washington County, who has known the couple since the days when he and Bart McLean were both on the University of Texas faculty. Says Korte, "They're so supportive of one another."

Joseph Dalton can be reached at 454-5478 or by e-mail at jdalton@timesunion.com.

FIRST STOP, POUGHKEEPSIE

Before heading south on their spring tour, Barton and Priscilla McLean will give a workshop and concert at Vassar College next weekend. Both events are free and open to the public. No reservations are necessary. Further information is available at (845) 437-7294.

  1. *What: a workshop in electronic music with technology demonstrations and discussion.
    * When: 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 22
    * Where: Skinner Hall of Music, Vassar College (Route 376 intersection of Raymond Avenue, Hooker Avenue and New Hackensack Road), Poughkeepsie

  2. *
    ALSO
    * What: A concert of electronic and electro-acoustic music with digital videos
    * When: 3 p.m. next Sunday, Jan. 23
    * Where: Blodgett Hall Auditorium, Vassar College (main campus), Poughkeepsie

The McLeans' appearances are part of Vassar College's "Mod Fest" series of contemporary music, which starts Friday and runs through the end of the month. A link to more information is available at http://collegerelations.vassar.edu/releases.

Permission for copying and use in normal university class work granted.


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